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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Alum & Rhodes Scholar Finalist Cameron Ekanayake Off to Columbia

July 20, 2022

Cameron Ekanayake is seeing his life come full circle as he heads off to medical school at Columbia this fall.

The 2020 Rhodes Scholar Finalist chose to walk on at Notre Dame after considering the likes of Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, Harvard, MIT and Yale five years ago.

“I realized how rare it is to find an institution where academics and athletics were held on such a global pedestal,” Ekanayake told Irish Sports Daily in 2017 following his decision to attend Notre Dame, “which opened my eyes to the rarity that is Notre Dame, a place that focuses on developing people as a whole and not merely in one category.”

Fast forward to May 2022.

Ekanayake was in a similar spot once again with a veritable who’s who of college choices, and Columbia made his final list of schools. Once again, the Edwardsburg (Mich.) native chose the school that afforded him multiple avenues to pursue his dreams.

"I was looking at medical schools with an intentional lens,” Ekanayake stated. “I wanted to go somewhere that would allow me to pursue what I was passionate about and for me, those are very interdisciplinary. I have an interest in public policy, tech, economics and medicine.”

Ekanayake is passionate about addressing some of the largest systemic problems in healthcare that affect millions, but he’s also found a great interest in working with the individual at the bedside through specialties like neurosurgery. Columbia will allow him to attack both, which helped make his decision.

"At a lot of places, you're pushed into one or the other,” explained Ekanayake. “And it’s understandable. It’s hard to really do both because the life of a surgeon is busy and the life of someone who is trying to tackle some of these large problems in healthcare is busy.

"But at a place like Columbia, I can do both, or at least they make you believe you can do both, which I think is very parallel to playing football at Notre Dame."

What are these massive problems in healthcare Ekanayake speaks about? It’s simple.

As a Science-Business major from Notre Dame, Ekanayake wants to look at how to sustainably finance healthcare in ways that will improve access and quality without economically crippling the stability of domestic and global healthcare systems.

And he thinks technology will help him solve this issue.

"Those are all very broad and wide-ranging problems,” said Ekanayake. “I wanted to go somewhere that was going to promote the type of interdisciplinary approaches needed to attack these problems. There are schools that are academic or clinical meccas that really focus on one thing and that's their niche, which is great, but what I found at Columbia and New York City is they really value these types of interdisciplinary approaches.

"I have these really big goals with our healthcare system and trying to find new ways to finance it that are equitable, sustainable, and won’t compromise the quality of care patients get. But I also have an interest in something specialized like neurosurgery.”

Rick Kimball/ISD
Cameron Ekanayake

Is it too much to take on? Ekanayake doesn’t believe so as he firmly believes his time at Notre Dame prepared him for this next step in life.

Ekanayake’s time at Notre Dame wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows as the life of a Sri Lankan walk-on is tough. He quickly found out as much as soon as he stepped on campus.

"I was a walk-on at Notre Dame and that was a huge part of my identity while playing football,” said Ekanayake. “The other part of this identity was being Sri Lankan and playing football at Notre Dame, because I was one of a few South Asians playing college football. Because of this, I was introduced to new stereotypes that I had no idea existed.

"Classmates of mine, friends, even family, when I told them I played football at Notre Dame, they looked at me twice. Dealing with this made me initially doubt myself. Add to this the doubt that inherently comes with being a walk-on and my first few years were much tougher than I could have expected.”

Ekanayake continued. 

"I bring this up because as I begin to try and address these large healthcare issues in my future career, I will draw on my experience as a Sri Lankan walk-on from Notre Dame,” Ekanayake said. “I want to address these really large issues in part by looking at data. I think we are at a point of inflection in history where advancements in technology are rapidly increasing. And with healthcare starting to employ more and more data every single day, advancements in technologies like artificial intelligence are going to better allow us to use this data and truly answer these problems I want to address in a way we have not been able to do before.

"Our healthcare system, however, is biased.  think the simplest reason for this is that individuals receive differential access to healthcare. And a lot of the time, these differences are perpetuated by things like race, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. These biases and disparities are then codified within the data that represents our healthcare systems. And if we try to use this data with something like artificial intelligence to solve these large problems, no matter how advanced, who is to say we won’t just perpetuate the same biases and disparities already present in today’s healthcare systems.

“That is why if I want to address these large healthcare issues using things like data and AI, I need to first understand how things like social injustice and food insecurity play a role in health outcomes so that we can really begin to use the data for what it’s worth. I think my time as a Sri-Lankan walk on will help me do this.”

Life as a walk-on alone is hard enough at any school as practices can be overwhelming and at times players questions if there is light at the end of the tunnel. Yet, Ekanayake stayed the course, put in the work and got on the field against Bowling Green (2019) and Syracuse (2020) which he attributes to the support of his teammates and the inclusive environment that Notre Dame Football has.

“These day-to-day challenges unique to being both a walk-on and a Sri Lankan at ND have become a large part of my identity,” Ekanayake explained. “When I did eventually see the field for the Irish, being a walk-on, I felt I had finally overcome the insurmountable challenge that countless said I would never do. A career in medicine also inevitably invites the potential for seemingly insurmountable challenges that can incite doubt upon even the most qualified physicians: unbeatable prognoses, pathological conundrums, and inextricable disparities. Being subjected to the doubt inherent to being a walk-on has further prepared me to face some of these challenges.

“In saying this, I understand that my fight for playing time is far from a fight against cancer or the fight for equitable healthcare. Yet, in a world where we are now realizing more than ever that harmful beliefs have been silently integrated within parts of society, as a Sri Lankan playing D1 football, I have seen the danger this silence possesses and realize the gravity of making sure people hear it.”

Rick Kimball/ISD
Cameron Ekanayake

Ekanayake interviewed at Northwestern, Michigan, Harvard, Mayo Clinic, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford before he settled on Columbia, and his football background was a topic of discussion as it was seen as a significant positive.

"I think the first thing everyone thinks about a Notre Dame football is player is someone who is disciplined and works hard,” stated Ekanayake. “For me, it's something much more than that. In my med school interviews, everyone said I could make a great surgeon because I knew how to wake up early, be dedicated, responsible and dependable. I think that's true and you get that with Coach Balis and coaches.

"But as a walk-on, you learn quite fast that six other days of the week you're playing football. Those six other days of the week are important days. If you're a walk-on and only focused on the field, you could be in for a long four years. Not everyone gets on the field and you learn to love the process. You learn to love to wake up at 4am to go to meetings and lifting weights at 5am on Monday. You love playing on the scout team and getting the other guys better. It becomes your role.”

‘The process’ is brought up across sports (and life) and it’s something Ekanayake has come to embrace into his daily life. He understands the journey has a big and small picture, which is why the medical field fascinates him.

It’s almost limitless as pre-snap reads.

“So much of medicine is a process,” stated Ekanayake. “It's a journey. If you're only focused on the end goal, then you're going to be in for a long process. If you focus on the end result as the only thing, you lose so much about what medicine is about. The opportunity to be a walk-on at Notre Dame helped me fall in love with the process."

Ekanayake won’t step foot on a football field again and he admits his future goals seem aggressive, but the lessons learned during his time at Notre Dame has given him the motivation to begin to chase his vision.

"A lot of people told me I couldn't play football at Notre Dame and do pre-med,” said Ekanayake. “Here I am right now. I want to see if I can do both. Is it ludicrous? Maybe. I chose Columbia because they have one of the best surgical programs in the country and they also have some of the greatest resources and infrastructures in place to really go attack these massive public healthcare problems.

"I feel it's the best of both worlds like when I made my decision to attend Notre Dame."

And don't wouldn’t doubt him as Ekanayake knew the road at Notre Dame would be hard - even he didn’t know what hardships he’d face when he committed in 2017.

“At a place like Notre Dame, the hardships I will face will be much greater, which means my resolve will have to be twice as large,” Ekanayake said five years ago. “That is exactly what I am looking for in my home for the next four years.”

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